Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam. CreditKaren Massier/E+, via Getty Images
Being a daily reader of the NYTimes it’s surprising that I missed the publication of this posthumous essay by neurologist and author Dr. Oliver Sacks, who died in 2015. This is especially notable related to biophilia, a subject that means a great deal to all of us on this site, in fact, as Dr. Sacks states, it is an essential part of the human condition.
Even for people who are deeply disabled neurologically, nature can be more powerful than any medication.
This is an excerpt from “Everything in Its Place,” a posthumous collection of writings by Dr. Sacks.
As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. All of us have had the experience of wandering through a lush garden or a timeless desert, walking by a river or an ocean, or climbing a mountain and finding ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit. The importance of these physiological states on individual and community health is fundamental and wide-ranging. In 40 years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical “therapy” to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.
The wonder of gardens was introduced to me very early, before the war, when my mother or Auntie Len would take me to the great botanical garden at Kew. We had common ferns in our garden, but not the gold and silver ferns, the water ferns, the filmy ferns, the tree ferns I first saw at Kew. It was at Kew that I saw the gigantic leaf of the great Amazon water lily, Victoria regia, and like many children of my era, I was sat upon one of these giant lily pads as a baby.
As a student at Oxford, I discovered with delight a very different garden — the Oxford Botanic Garden, one of the first walled gardens established in Europe. It pleased me to think that Boyle, Hooke, Willis and other Oxford figures might have walked and meditated there in the 17th century.
I try to visit botanical gardens wherever I travel, seeing them as reflections of their times and cultures, no less than living museums or libraries of plants.
Cherokee Prairie Natural Area near Fort Smith, Arkansas. WILLIAM DARK PHOTOGRAPHY
Janet Marinelli, according to her author’s bio, is an award-winning independent journalist who was director of scientific and popular publications at Brooklyn Botanic Garden for 16 years; according to our read of her work over the last two years she is also a perfect fit with our mission to find at least one story every day that explains the natural world, illuminates the possibilities of entrepreneurial conservation or challenges us to be more careful with natural resources. She brightens our day:
Native prairie and savanna once covered vast areas of the U.S. Southeast from Maryland to Texas, but agriculture and sprawl have left only small patches remaining. Now, a new initiative, driven by scientists and local communities, is pushing to restore these imperiled grassland habitats.
Southeastern grasslands have some of the highest plant richness in the world, home to rare species such as American chaffseed. COURTESY OF TIM MARTIN & USFWS
Dwayne Estes pulls over to the side of a rural road in Franklin County, Tennessee, about 20 miles from the Alabama border. He hops out of his truck and points out a small plant with dainty, trumpet-shaped white flowers with purple-streaked throats. “This is Penstemon kralii,” says Estes, a 40-year-old, 6-foot-3-inch-tall professor sporting a baseball cap and beard, the twin badges of honor for many field botanists. The plant is found almost exclusively at the base of the Cumberland Plateau escarpment, where it survives precariously in narrow, grassy roadside fringes with other rare and threatened species, including a sunflower and a blue-eyed grass yet to be named and described by scientists.
Kral’s penstemon. COURTESY OF TIM MARTIN & USFWS
We continue to the top of the steep, densely forested escarpment. Below, a checkerboard of croplands and pastures stretches as far as the eye can see. “Before 1840, those agricultural fields were prairies covering half a million, maybe 750,000 acres,” Estes says. “They were maintained by frequent fires and bison.” The wildfires probably swept up the base of the adjacent escarpment, he adds, keeping it open and sunny oak savanna where the penstemon and its companions could thrive. Like so many southern grassland denizens, they are vestiges of a lost botanical world that once covered as many as 120 million acres from Maryland to East Texas, caught in a vise between habitat loss to agriculture and urban sprawl on the one hand, and encroaching fire-suppressed forest on the other. Continue reading
It’s been 5 years since we first began highlighting the Great Backyard Bird Count, a citizen science collaboration between the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada. Since then, we’ve participated in 3 countries, on 2 continents, primarily in birding hotspots such as the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala, India, a special corridor of avian biodiversity in the foothills of Poas Volcano in Costa Rica, and Baja California Sur, Mexico.
The data that is collected by thousands of individual birders for eBird has long range benefits for monitoring both the health and range of particular species, as well as the state of the planet as species have to adapt to changing climate.
The map above indicates the locations from which checklists have been submitted (each gray dot represents a list, and the larger yellow dots are a moment frozen in time when a list has just been submitted. I highly recommend clicking on the image to view the site and watch the “lists” pop through the map!) Initially the GBBC only took place in North America, and birders worldwide rejoiced when it was expanded into a global event. (We were in India at the time, so I kid you not.) Continue reading
Another creative commitment to Green Innovation. Thanks to the Times of India for this story about how Ahmedabad embraces green walls, goes vertical:
Aapnu Amdavad has a lot to boast about. From being the first city to have been declared India’s first Unesco World Heritage City to being home to some prime educational institutes, this city has gained prominence on the global map. Having said that, the city has its share of dark spots too. The fast diminishing green cover in the city is one of them. India’s fifth largest city has a tree cover of approximately 35 crores (as per a 2017 census), which although is 13% more than the number of trees in 2013, is still not enough. The ongoing metro project has also led to a lot of felling of trees. Taking into consideration all this, Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) has decided to build vertical gardens in the city. It recently set up a small vertical garden along one of the pillars at the flyover at Helmet crossroads.
What are vertical gardens? Essentially vertical gardens are the kind of gardens that grow vertically, along walls or pillars, with the help of trellis (which are wooden frames) or similar support systems. Continue reading
The Berlin-based florist Ruby Barber of Mary Lennox created some of her signature cloud arrangements with once-neglected weeds. A composite of individual arrangements, from left, of weeping amaranth and fresh and dried wild grasses; an abundant gathering of the once-humble smoke bush, now a fashionable challenger to traditional hothouse flowers; and Queen Anne’s lace. Credit Photograph by Guido Castagnoli. Flowers styled by Mary Lennox
Ralph Waldo Emerson may have written that a weed is just “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered,” but another way of stating it is that a weed “is a plant growing in the wrong place”. The current revalorization of the “common weed”– aesthetically, culinarily and nutritionally — dovetails beautifully with much of what we highlight on this site. Thanks to Ligaya Mishan of the NYTimes for the refocus.
From the flower arrangement to the plate, this is the era of the formerly unwanted plant.
A WEED IS UNWANTED: That is its definition. It is a plant that we have deemed to have no value because it contributes nothing to our life, neither nourishment nor beauty. Why should it help us when it doesn’t need us to survive, its seeds borne on the idlest gust, taking root and thriving in even the cruelest terrain? It stands wholly apart from human civilization, hardy and self-sustaining, mocking our hegemony, claiming the earth as its own. Worse, it is a predator, stealing resources — real estate, sunlight — from the plants we do value and rely on, crowding them out, threatening their existence and, by extension, ours.
A weed is never singular but an army. Its legions sweep across land like the Golden Horde, “always three steps ahead of the gardener, traveling underground, seeding by the million, smothering all in their path,” says the British writer and landscape designer Isabel Bannerman. Her husband and partner, Julian Bannerman, frames it slightly less savagely: The garden “is a bit like having a party. What we call weeds are the uninvited guests.” And in the Swedish writer and illustrator Elsa Beskow’s picture book “The Flowers’ Festival,” originally published in 1914 as “Blomsterfesten i Tappan,” they appear as exactly that, a rabble of thistles, chickweed, nettles and burdock, “scoundrels and beggars and ragamuffins” all, consigned to a ditch outside the garden to glower while the violets and orchids revel. “But we’re flowers, too,” the weeds roar.
But their time has come. Continue reading
Jon Asgeir Jonsson, who works for a private forestry association, with larch saplings in western Iceland.
It’s never easy being green, but especially millennia after deforestation. Thanks to Henry Fountain and the New York Times:
GUNNARSHOLT, Iceland — With his flats of saplings and a red planting tool, Jon Asgeir Jonsson is a foot soldier in the fight to reforest Iceland, working to bring new life to largely barren landscapes.
The country lost most of its trees more than a thousand years ago, when Viking settlers took their axes to the forests that covered one-quarter of the countryside. Now Icelanders would like to get some of those forests back, to improve and stabilize the country’s harsh soils, help agriculture and fight climate change. Continue reading
A mushroom dropped in on my life, in an unexpected manner, and now I find myself wandering to unexpected places, such as rural Pennsylvania. I am sharing here mainly as a record of how I have come across the resources that inform how we approach bringing foraging to Chan Chich Lodge.
So, bravo and thanks to our friends at the Horn Farm Center for Agricultural Education, which is my latest find in these wanderings. I particularly like their clearly laid out information on the educational resources they offer, most notably this section on foraging classes: Continue reading
Photos by Penn, Steichen and other classic masters share the pages with some of today’s greatest photographers in this book. It brings our attention to flora in both natural and still-life settings, making this kind of debate irrelevant.
Floral arranging, an art form, can be seen as baiting, in a way. We are mindful of the fact that most of the world increasingly lives in urban settings. While our job is to provide access to the wonders of wild nature, there is a vital role for plants in the daily lives of urbanites to remind them to get back to nature from time to time. If this book provides coffee tables daily reminders of that imperative, we are all for baiting.
Single Oriental Poppy (C), 1968 by Irving Penn. From Plant: Exploring the Botanical World
Plant is ‘an art exhibit in book form’ says one of the judges – and who are we to disagree? Continue reading
For Fijians, this flower is viewed rarely enough to enhance its sacred status; for the rest of us, a photograph like the one above is like a siren call to come, behold it:
TAVEUNI ISLAND, Fiji — In Fiji, flowers can take on a spiritual, magical significance. They are strung together as garlands for ceremonies and festivals or worn as an ornament behind the ear on any given day.
The South Pacific archipelago is home to about 800 species of plants found nowhere else in the world. But the most special is the tagimoucia, a crimson and white flower that hangs down in clusters like a chain of ruby raindrops. Because of its beauty and rarity, it has attained a kind of celebrity status. Continue reading
Compared to “juicy” pop culture news, nature-lovers and conservationists constantly have to fight for people’s attention on subjects like endangered animals or protected wildlife. However, the struggle for plant devotees to garner people’s interest on green eukaryotes is much more difficult, except maybe for some garden-popular flowers and vegetables, and perhaps a few trees, but otherwise plants go unnoticed.
Conservation efforts are devoted overwhelmingly to animals; compared to the hundreds of plant species easily found but mostly overlooked in our environs. There’s even a formal name for this: plant blindness. And in a study published in the journal Conservation Biology, biologists Kathryn Williams and Mung Balding of Australia’s University of Melbourne ask whether it’s inevitable: Are people hard-wired by evolution to ignore the vegetal world? Can something be done about it?
“We are absolutely dependent on plants for life and health, but so often they fade into the background and miss out in the direct actions we take to protect our planet,” says Williams. “I wonder how the world would look if more people, instead of seeing a wall of green, saw individual plants as potential medicine, a source of food, or a loved part of their community.”
Water lettuce and aquatic fern are misnomers for the type of task these plants might be used for in the near future. German researchers recently discovered that Salvinia molesta, an aquatic fern, and Pistia stratiotes, a type of water lettuce, have a specialized leaf anatomy that not only repels water and traps air, but also traps a lot of oil. The leaves of these plants are covered with tiny, hairlike structures called trichomes that allow the plant to float on the water surface and when dried, absorb more oil than two commercial oil absorbents used for oil spill cleanup, Duerex Pure and Öl-Ex.
[The] existing methods of dealing with oil spills all have significant drawbacks. Chemical dispersants and burning can spread toxins around, while environmentally friendly materials like sawdust and wheat straw absorb water in addition to oil, making cleanup messy and inefficient.
Whether you live in an urban or rural setting, the abundance of edible plants that surround us typically remains unconsumed unless we are referring to the plants that are growing in our own gardens. “Wildman” Steve, NYC’s famed foraging expert, is an avid naturalist who learns about the properties of common plants growing in neighborhoods in order to identify their utility for human consumption, including their medicinal attributes in some cases. He shares his findings through various forums and even has a phone application to offer a practical and user-friendly tool for those who want to get “in the field” and learn.
All of his videos, like the one below, remind us of the plethora of flavorful plant species right in our own backyard or neighborhood park and the following one highlights the joy it can be to do it with someone you love.
The UK has a rich history of biological recording by scientists and ‘citizen scientists’ who document the first signs of spring. Photograph: Alamy/Guardian
We first heard of the word phenology on this site back in 2012, from writings on a citizen science workshop in the Galápagos. Since then, the term has been linked to citizen science in the context of forest life cycles in England, coffee farming in Costa Rica, and orchids in the United Kingdom. It’s a good thing that there’s a history of normal people collecting information on nature’s timelines in Britain, because that provides rich and deep data on changing phenology with a warming climate. Jessica Aldred reports for the Guardian on a new study published in Nature:
Climate change is disrupting the seasonal behaviour of Britain’s plants and animals, with rising temperatures having an impact on species at different levels of the food chain, new research shows.
The result could be widespread “desynchronisation” between species and their phenological events – seasonal biological cycles such as breeding and migration – that could affect the functioning of entire ecosystems, according to the large-scale study published this week in the journal Nature.
The primary threads in the floral carpet are yellow — the most common flower is called Desert Gold, which looks like a yellow daisy. Credit National Park Service
One of the most evocatively named US National Parks, Death Valley is currently awash in color due to record-breaking autumn rains. The impact of water on one of the driest places on earth is stunning, with carpets of flowers blooming from the latent seeds that remain dormant for years in the dry, crusty soil.
Find more images in the NYTimes Science feature, and via the National Park Service.
Image © KPG_Payless | Shutterstock
Thanks to Conservation for Roberta Kwok’s summary of scientific news we had not quite expected, nor wished for:
A relaxing stroll in a botanic garden sounds like a lovely way to spend an afternoon. These green oases can encourage people to appreciate nature and bring attention to conservation issues. But some botanic gardens might harbor an ecological threat: they could be prime sources for invasive species to spread into the wild. Continue reading
One of José Luis’s orchids at Xandari.
From Friday the 24rd of October to Sunday the 26th, Alajuela had their annual orchid exposition, which includes displays and awards as well as a few lectures on growing orchids and a section for sale or auction. As James and I have written before, Xandari has a wonderful collection of this family of flowers in addition to the general gardens thanks to the industrious efforts of our head gardener, José Luis Ballestero. He has a little greenhouse near Xandari’s restaurant with about a hundred plants that are often in varying stages of development, depending on how much time he has to prune them.
The three photos above are examples of some of the orchids on display in Xandari’s common area, like the reception, lobby, and restaurant room. At the expo this weekend, there were dozens of species and hundreds of individual plants, including hybrids, miniature flowers, and some fantastically strange Continue reading
For flower lovers, ecologists, and concerned citizens everywhere, important news in today’s Hindu:
As a global biodiversity hotspot and a world heritage site, the Western Ghats is a magnet for conservationists, nature lovers, scientists and researchers hoping to delve into the secrets of its abundant flora and fauna. But despite decades of study by individuals and groups, an essential reference work cataloguing the rich biodiversity of the region has remained a dream.
In a bid to address this need, scientists at the Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute (JNTBGRI) at Palode near here have come out with a comprehensive work on the flowering plants of the Western Ghats.
Published in two volumes, the 1,700-page book reveals the occurrence of a total of 7,402 species of flowering plants in the region, out of which 5,588 species are native or indigenous. Of the rest, 376 are exotics naturalised and 1,438 species are cultivated or planted as ornamentals. Continue reading
This little gem can be found along the path to the art studio.
And so the flora-files march on (see past posts, starting from the most recent here). Continuing these posts has become a way for me to reflect on the wonderful opportunities I had at Xandari and around Costa Rica to come into contact with a lot of fascinating and beautiful flora and fauna. As I peruse my photo catalogs and look for pictures to post, I feel like I’m back there, even briefly. Continue reading